“It has been a long time coming, but I’m just glad it’s happening now,” admitted Ireland prop Mike Ross, as he looks forward to his first taste of Six Nations rugby against Italy this weekend.
The hard work Mike Ross put in over the years has all led to this – his first RBS 6 Nations for Ireland in the cauldron of Stadio Flaminio in Rome.
The 31-year-old, who made the grade at Harlequins before popping up on the Ireland radar, can now look back to the days when he combined a full-time job with lining out for Cork Constitution and say it was all worth it.
“I suppose after I came out of college and I was working a full-time job, I was trying to combine training with the work,” he explained.
“There were some mornings I was getting up at 5am to go into work on a Saturday and try and get the work done before I would head off to play against Shannon or whoever for Cork Con.
“At 24 or 25, I was thinking was this really going to happen for me? Thankfully, I got an opportunity to train with Munster during the Six Nations when the Irish lads were away. That brought me up a level.
“So, when I got an opportunity of a trial match with Harlequins, I was able to take the opportunity that presented itself and have a three-month contract and it kicked on from there.
“I owe a lot to Dean Richards (the director of rugby at Harlequins during Ross’ time there). He took a punt on me. I didn’t have a huge rugby CV to speak of.
“I played AIL with Cork Con, had played with UCC too, so I think the fact that he took a look at a trial game and I played well in those, he offered me a three-month contract – but it must have been a close thing at that time.”
While breaking into the Harlequins team was no easy feat, the Corkman then realised how difficult becoming an Ireland international would be despite his success in England.
“It is difficult over in England because outside the IRB window you can’t go in for camps because PRL (Premier Rugby Limited) over there block you.
“Obviously, England pay them substantial amounts to release their players, but that is not the case with Ireland. So, if you want to be in the mix it is quite difficult – unless you are a Geordan Murphy – to make it into the squad,” added Ross, who spent 2006 to 2009 in London.
When he signed for Leinster back in 2009 he gave his international chances a kickstart. That summer, he went on Ireland’s tour to USA and Canada, during which he won both of his Test caps to date.
Now he is focused on Saturday and the challenge which the Italians will bring, one which he will most certainly not be shying away from.
“It is a measure of where you are if you go over there and perform on their home patch. The Italians have a very good scrum. They are very aggressive. You have got some strong scrummagers.
“You have (Martin) Castrogiovanni who does the business week in, week out over in the Premiership. You have (Andrea) Lo Cicero and (Salvatore) Perugini – they are strong men and they’re no shrinking violets.
“If you don’t front up in that area, it is going to be a long afternoon. We really have to step up to the mark in that area. If they sense a weakness there, they will go for that all day and won’t let up.”
Ross, who has been displaying consistent form for Leinster this season, now feels ready to test himself on the biggest stage. He wants to repay the faith Declan Kidney has put in him.
There was media speculation in the build-up to the Championship that he would make the cut for the Ireland squad, and Ross is determined to ‘front up’ where it counts the most for a player in his position – in the scrum.
“There is an element of pressure there certainly. The ‘save the scrum’ concept is a strange one, but for anyone who was picked there, if you are a prop, it is what you will be examined on – the scrum.
“That is what you will be measured on. That is what you will be judged on and if you don’t deliver that, there is a bit of pressure.
“It is my first Six Nations start. Of course there is pressure on there. It is up to me. I have been given this chance. I have to take it.
“You can’t really focus too much on perceptions. You have to look after your own shop first and foremost and do the things that got you there in the first place.
“There is no point changing any bit of my preparation this week because what has worked for me so far is what I have been doing, so I have to keep the preparation the same and that will follow through in the game.”